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Scenic Talava Arch, Niue                   Source:  Brian Scantlebury / Adobe Stock

Behold the Coconut! There’s Nothing Savage About Niue

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There are many small countries in the vast South Pacific and they are often unknown to the world outside the region. Niue is one of these - a tiny country with a unique culture as a result of its history. It has been nicknamed ‘Rock of Polynesia’ because of its rugged terrain.

Geography of Niue

The island is an upraised coral reef and is approximately 375 miles (605 km) south of Tonga and 391 miles (630 km) west of Samoa. It is further to the Cook Islands. Niue has no natural harbor, but the island overlooks a beautiful lagoon and is culturally distinct. It is only 260 square kilometers and traditionally most of the population lived on the west of the island.

Togo Chasm landscape, Hakupa, Niue (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Togo Chasm landscape, Hakupa, Niue (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Niue, which means ‘behold the coconut’ in the native language, is one of the largest coral islands in the world. Like other islands in the region, it is vulnerable to hurricanes and cyclones. Some 1,100 people live on Niue, but the majority of citizens now live in New Zealand and elsewhere.

The History of Niue

The island was first settled by Polynesian sailors from Samoa sometime between 900 and 1000 AD, colonized by members of the Lapita culture. The first settlers probably lived off the island's resources and engaged in basic agriculture. The coconut was a staple food for the first colonists.

One local myth claims that the island was created by a god from the south who raised the rocks upon which it stands from the bottom of the sea. Little is known about the history of Niue, but it appears that no state emerged and that tribal chiefs ruled the island. Things changed with the arrival of the Tongans in the 16 th century and the institution of kingship developed on the island. The island was then ruled by a number of kings, and tribal warfare was common.

In 1774, the island was sighted by the great British explorer Captain James Cook, who was unable to land with his sailors. He called it ‘Savage Island’ because of the hostility of the natives. Over the subsequent decades, whalers and trading ships landed on the island and the people of Niue became exposed to Western technology and culture.

Captain James Cook and the Endeavor (Image by jamescook250)

Captain James Cook and the Endeavor (Image by jamescook250)

During the mid-19 th century, British missionaries arrived on the island and eventually converted all the population to Christianity. During the 19 th century, the island was ruled by a centralized monarchy, whose kings were known as the Patu-tiki. The people of Niue came under increasing western influence and were affected by leprosy which was brought to the island by the Europeans.

In the 1890s the king asked that his kingdom be annexed to the British Empire and in 1901 the island came under the control of New Zealand. Many islanders served during WWI and the majority of them did not return.

There has been a great deal of emigration from Niue to New Zealand and the majority of Niueans now live in that country. After a referendum in 1974, Niue voted for more autonomy. Today the country is in free association with New Zealand which manages its external affairs and subsidizes its economy. Most citizens are bilingual as they speak both official languages, Niuean and English. Despite the growing influence of the outside world local traditions are still vibrant.

Local Historic Sites

There are several interesting historic sites on the island. These include the Taue Fupae which is a rocky outcrop and was probably used as a natural defensive stronghold. Ekalesia Church is a beautiful church overlooking the blue Pacific, and another important sight is Peniamina’s grave, which commemorates the man who reputedly brought Christianity to the island. There are a number of magnificent chasms on the island and a noteworthy sculpture park.

Getting to Niue

Getting to the island can be difficult as there are only two flights a week to the island and they all depart from New Zealand.

Location of Niue (Google Maps)

Location of Niue (Google Maps)

It is also possible to visit the island as part of a cruise. Many visitors like to visit Niue by yacht and there are several beautiful coves which are popular with sailors.

Top image: Scenic Talava Arch, Niue                   Source:  Brian Scantlebury / Adobe Stock

By Ed Whelan


McDowell, D. (1961). A history of Niue

Available at:

McLachlan, S. (1982). Savage island or savage history: an interpretation of early European contact with Niue. Pacific Studies, 6(1), 26

Walter, R., & Anderson, A. (1995). Archaeology of Niue Island: initial results. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 104(4), 471-481

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

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